Vietnamese (9): Back from Hanoi


Turtle Tower (Tháp Rùa) in Hoàn Kiếm Lake, central Hanoi

For three wonderful weeks, I’ve explored a few neighbourhoods of Hanoi, tasted local cuisine, enjoyed the balmy weather, met several lovely people – and studied the Vietnamese language. Studied hard, and loved almost every moment of it. Yes, the food was distinctive and delightful, but one can only spend so much time eating. That left me loads of time for other delights: those feeding my linguistic hunger, which borders on the insatiable.

‘So can you chat with the Vietnamese now?’ The answer is simple and disappointing: no, or as close to no as makes no difference. I can definitely read a lot more than before, I may be able to express a few more things than I used to, but when it comes to listening – an essential ingredient of any chat – I remain an embarrassing underachiever.

No surprise there, for this is my traditional weak spot: my listening skills always lag far behind reading and speaking. Spanish too sounded like an impenetrable wall of sound at first. But at some point I began to recognise the acoustic bricks and learnt to plant my fingers ever more firmly in the mortar joints between them, which finally enabled me to crisscross the wall like a gecko. Practice and perseverance did it. I don’t expect my Vietnamese will ever be as good as my Spanish, but I should be able to get beyond the wall-of-sound stage. Unfortunately, I haven’t found the mortar joints during this first stay.

Before leaving, it was my intention to offer you a real-time blow-by-blow account of my discoveries and frustrations, in a whole series of fascinating blog posts. But what with seeing my teacher, doing homework, organising my daily life, going to the gym, seeing a few sights and sharing stuff on Facebook (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8), I never got round it. But I promise I’ll still share the experience with you: I’ve already started writing the chapter on Vietnamese for my next book, BABEL, which is planned for October. I intend to put up parts of the chapter here on the blog, and perhaps some other posts as well.

For now, let me say thank you to the people who made my stay in Vietnam a memory to cherish: especially my host Phong and his wife; my teacher Loan; and my online teacher Huyền and her boyfriend Óscar, who I finally met in the flesh.

It would of course be silly to thank the many dozens of people I had fleeting interactions with or the thousands that I passed in the street. Yet it is significant that the thought to do so occurs to me nonetheless. The thing is, I liked the atmosphere of Hanoi in a way and to a degree that I’ve never experienced in similar-sized cities where I spent a few days (Manilla, Nairobi, Buenos Aires), weeks (Istanbul, Quito, Moscow) or months (Lima). Hanoi is at least as noisy and as smelly as any of these, and probably more cramped and crowded. But there’s something gentle and unflappable about its people that makes the place unexpectedly liveable. Thanks, người Hà Nội.

2 thoughts on “Vietnamese (9): Back from Hanoi

  1. Welcome back! It sounds like your Vietnamese adventure was successful, considering the kind of task you had set up for yourself! I’ve read somewhere that, when learning a foreign language, the easiest thing is to read it, then comes understanding it when it’s spoken, and lastly, to be able to express yourself in it – and I myself can attest to the fact from my experience.
    So now, go back to work! Babel is waiting!
    Anna R.


    • Thanks, Anna!
      In my experience, speaking is easier than understanding – but only at first. Once I can recognise what words people are saying, the passive skill of listening becomes easier than the active one of speaking, just like reading is easier than writing.


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